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The remarkable life of Lady Rhondda

09 Jan 2022 7 minute read
Margaret Haig Thomas (1883-1958) by Alice Mary Burton (1893-1968) Parliamentary Art Collection

Next week BBC Radio 4 turns its spotlight to Welsh suffragette Margaret Haig Thomas who is more commonly known as Lady Rhondda, as nominated by former President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale for the Great Lives programme.

Lady Hale will be joined by expert Professor Angela V. John to discuss the vivid life of Lady Rhondda who survived the sinking of the Lusitania, went to prison for setting a post box on fire in the name of women’s rights and became the first and to-date only female President of the Institute of  Directors.

The programme will be broadcast next Tuesday 11 January at 4.30pm, and again on Friday 14 at 11pm, after which it will be available to catch-up online.

The journalist, businesswoman and tireless champion of women’s rights, Margaret Haig Thomas (who became Mrs / Lady Mackworth and from 1918, Lady Rhondda) led a multi-faceted life and powerful life as one of the movers and shakers in Welsh and English society in the first half of the twentieth century. But this life was not without drama and danger as is demonstrated by these three extracts from her biography by Angela V. John, Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda, Parthian, 2013:

In 1909 Margaret and the militant Annie Kenney, both activists in Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, held a women’s suffrage meeting at the Bowen Jenkins Memorial Hall in Aberdare

Margaret was received with cheers, boos and whistles. She first explained the WSPU’s main aim, since Annie Kenney had advised her always to state what she wanted and why, followed by how she meant to obtain it. But there followed such a cacophony of sounds – hoots, shouts, a shrill blast from a trumpet, cat-calls, a policeman’s whistle and a rattle – that her words were drowned. She persevered, mentioning Asquith (cheers followed) and remarking that she could not understand ‘how any Liberal true to his principles can object to the vote being granted to women on the same terms as men’…But ‘unseemly gestures’, the singing of comic songs and noise from outside where a crowd scratched the rough glass windows, ensured that little more could be said.

The women attempted to restore the peace but herrings, ripe tomatoes and cabbages were hurled onto the platform. Even Kenney, a seasoned campaigner, had great difficulty in being heard…

The Aberdare meeting rapidly got out of control. Dead mice were hurled onto the platform and live mice let loose in the body of the hall, along with sulphurated hydrogen gas, snuff and cayenne pepper (producing loud sneezes). Window panes were smashed, many chairs were broken and ‘some fear was entertained of something approaching a panic’. Although initially refusing to give up, after ten more minutes of attempting in vain to be heard, even Kenney surrendered. The women walked out slowly from the back of the platform into the gymnasium and escaped in a cab.

In May 1915, during the First World War, Margaret and her father the industrialist and politician D.A. Thomas, returned from a business trip in the United States. They travelled on the Lusitania and when it was torpedoed not far from the coast of Ireland, she was sucked down with the ship.

Margaret found herself deep down under the water in darkness. She was still holding her father’s lifebelt. Later she told the press that she was in ‘mounting terror’ of being drowned by becoming entangled with some part of the ship. But although her wrist caught on a rope and left a lasting mark, she managed to free it. She grasped a piece of wood just a few inches wide and several feet in length.

She came to the surface amidst what seemed to be literally a sea of people. They were crammed together with ‘boats, hencoops, chairs, rafts, boards and goodness knows what else’…Half-dazed, Margaret was beyond feeling acute fear. She later wrote that with death so close ‘the sharp agony of fear is not there; the thing is too overwhelming and stunning for that’…

A few boats were visible but it was impossible to swim more than a few strokes and Margaret was loath to abandon her board. It was intensely cold and the swell made her sick. It also caused people and debris to begin drifting apart. She thought of a possible invention: strapping a small bottle of chloroform to each lifebelt would help the drowning person to lose consciousness. Looking up at the sun high in the sky she wished she could do so. That was the last thing she remembered.

But after about two-and-three-quarter hours in the water, just as it was growing dark, she was picked up by a rowing boat. She had only been located because a wicker deck chair had floated up under her, raising her a little. A mark in the water was detected and Margaret was discovered. She was presumed dead. She and a number of bodies were transferred to a small patrol steamer called the Bluebell that was patrolling the waters between Kinsale and Ballycotton. She was dumped on deck. Luckily a midshipman thought there was possibly ‘some life in this woman’ and attended to her.

Turning The Tide by Professor Angela V. John

After her father obtained permission from the monarch for his daughter to succeed him as a ‘Peeress in her own right’, the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda argued that she and the two dozen other women in her position should be able to take their seats in the House of Lords. Not so, argued the Earl of Birkenhead who was both Lord Chancellor and the presiding officer of the House of Lords. He reversed the decision to proceed that had been made by a Lords committee.

In Birkenhead’s view, the judgments and opinions of the ‘average’ woman were ‘more coloured by emotion and by personal considerations’ than were the average man’s and at times of crisis might ‘prove a source of instability and disaster to the State’.

The subject of women in the House of Lords touched a raw nerve. It symbolised for Margaret unfinished business and was a natural concomitant to the protracted struggle for the vote, completing women’s struggle for parliamentary representation. For Birkenhead it was also linked to the past, reviving visceral sentiments about wild women activists…

The notion of women peers spelt much more of a threat to Birkenhead than had women’s suffrage. For it struck at the heart of his world. It threatened the male establishment that this clubbable man most cherished, the space and place that nurtured, displayed and applauded his virtuoso performances and the seat of his authority. A verse in Time and Tide [the influential weekly paper that Margaret had founded in 1920 and would edit from 1926] told of ‘bold Birkenhead’ who thought:

‘t would put all Heaven in a rage,

To see a Peeress in the Gilded Cage.

Margaret stood for all that worried Birkenhead and vice versa. Unlike many in the Lords she had spent her adult life working and in the masculine world of business. A cartoon in the Sunday Chronicle depicted Birkenhead as a medieval Horatius holding the bridge as Lady Rhondda and her ‘Amazonian cohorts’ advanced. His relentless attack on women’s rights helped to ensure that Margaret persisted.

Turning the Tide is published by Parthian and is available to buy here…..

If you’d like to contribute to the appeal for a a statue of Lady Rhondda you can do so here….

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Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
2 years ago

There was a book published last year; Wales’ Unknown Hero: Soldier, Spy, Monk: The life of Henry Coombe-Tennant, MC, of Neath.His story is crazy enough but his mother’s, Winifred Coombe Tennant, is crazier. She too was a Liberal candidate, a suffragette, a friend of Lloyd Georges but was also Gorsedd Mistress of the Robes and a bard “Mam o’r Nedd” in her own right. She was married to an older man and wanted another child so slept with one of the Balfours to have Henry at 39 years of age. Her life’s work was bound up in art and she… Read more »

Jane Winter
2 years ago

Good for Lady Hale for nominating Lady Rhondda. Many women have made important contributions to the work of the House of Lords(!) since Lady Rhondda broke the mould. Angela John’s biography of Lady Rhondda is fascinating and well worth a read. She truly was a remarkable woman to which women today owe a debt of gratitude.

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